Elephants, pancakes and breaking the law: Nairobi early days

When we first arrived in Nairobi, I wasn’t sure how to be. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Nairobi is vilified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, so you get a bizarre sense of satisfaction after spending a month there without so much as having your wallet lifted.” This was certainly something to look forward to. But what to do until then?

I found it very difficult to assess the actual menace. What is the relationship between most dangerous in the world and most dangerous you can imagine? Walking the shade-dappled lane from our hotel to the nearest ATM, I couldn’t figure out if I was reasonably safe carrying the money back to our room, or if I was being a total idiot. (Some people – many of them concerned Kenyans – warn tourists never to walk anywhere, ever.) When Kevin and I got lost on the dusty streets of what I now know to be one of Nairobi’s more upscale neighborhoods, my heart pounded as we strode around unfamiliar corners, trying to look purposeful. Was someone going to, like, leap out and stab me in the face? Remembering that tight sense of panic embarrasses me now.

Unfortunately, my tension showed: On a lunch outing during my first week of work, a friend of a coworker asked how long I’d been in Kenya. Three days, I said. “Ah, I can tell,” he replied. “Your colleagues are at ease, but you are…” and he mimed looking around nervously. “Welcome to Kenya,” he went on. “Be at home!”

Mortified and apologetic, I tried my best. We got a furnished apartment; after a month with heavy backpacks, it was pretty heavenly to unpack. We each went to work and found we liked our work environments, and people went out of their way to invite us to do things. We cooked modest meals.

There was the occasional hiccup: One night, riding in a cab with a broken seatbelt, an oily cop with an AK-47 intercepted us at a makeshift checkpoint and successfully intimidated me into bribing him about four dollars to avoid being arrested. (Which he had no grounds to do, I know now, but at the time I wasn’t quick-witted enough to ask for evidence of the applicable traffic law.) Was I falling in with local practicalities, or proving my own gullibility and weak moral fiber? I still feel slimy with guilt, thinking about it.

We offset the occasional discomfort with some fun things. Some of which are shown in this motley little set of photos from our first couple of weeks. Months ago, when I promised photos of baby elephants and regular giraffes? Finally finally, here those are.

Aaagggghhhh, I know! So cute!

The unsurprising punch line is that I have learned to be at home. It took me a little longer than it took Kevin, but these days, I really like it here – in the staunch, outsize way we tend to like things that require a fair amount of effort. There are dangers and inconveniences, but they’re OUR dangers and inconveniences. And while I feel foolish thinking of my anxious early days, I’m also a little proud: I was terrified, but at least I hung in for the reward, you know? And now, when our friends say “you’ll be back,” I think they may be right.